“Ddeokbokki Town”, Seoul, is so much more than a collection of your average street-side stands. And the ddeokbokki they serve is so much more than your average street-side fare.
By Meagan Mastriani
My little corner of Seoul, known as Sindang-dong, is famous for one thing — ddeokbokki. Or is it tteokbokki? However you spell it, it’s as delicious as it is difficult to Romanize. Ddeokbokki (as it will be known for the purposes of this column!) is one of Korea’s most popular street foods, consisting of chewy cylindrical rice cakes in a spicy red pepper sauce (often with odeng, thinly-sliced fish cakes).
You could say ddeokbokki is Korea’s spaghetti counterpart. Like spaghetti, ddeokbokki is easily-made, with just two main ingredients, and serves as a comfort food and dietary staple for kids all over the country. It’s one of those essential, feel-good (though maybe not so healthy) snacks found virtually anywhere.
When I heard that my neighborhood had a whole street filled with ddeokbokki vendors, I naturally imagined a long row of carts peddling this spicy, saucy treat. I pictured it to be sort of an outdoor market, rather than a street full of actual restaurants, which is what it really is.
“Ddeokbokki Town,” as it’s known, is so much more than a collection of your average street-side stands. And the ddeokbokki they serve is so much more than your average street-side fare.
The largest and most popular restaurant is called “I Love Sindangdong,” formed after seven separate businesses merged to form one massive restaurant in 2002. It’s open 24 hours, and it has been full every time I have visited, regardless of the day or time. The front doors boast an impressive gallery of celebrity visitor photos, and there is even a stage for daily live music performances.
After wading through the crowds, visitors are seated at simple metal tables, complete with a table-top stove and aprons for everyone. There’s also a thermos of self-serve water and a stack of austere metal cups at each table. Though this ddeokbokki is a step up from the sidewalk to-go version, it’s still far from gourmet. The servers bring you the uncooked food, and you do the rest. The down-home, almost camp-like feeling of stirring the food around with your forks is what makes it so fun.
There are a number of interesting ddeokbokki varieties at I Love Sindangdong, none of which resemble the traditional version of the dish except for the presence of rice cakes (the “ddeok”). The basic ingredients in I Love Sindangdong’s ddeokbokki include ramyan noodles, boiled eggs, mushrooms, glass noodles, onions, and peppers. Then, there are more specialized versions with additions like bulgogi (the famous marinated barbecued beef), seafood, and mozzarella-stuffed rice cakes (my personal favorite). There’s even one dish called nunmul ddeokbokki, known for being ultra-spicy (“nunmul” means “tears” — yikes!).
Apart from the extra ingredients, another key factor that sets Sindangdong-style ddeokbokki apart from the rest is the sauce. The restaurants in Sindangdong are all known for adding Chinese soybean paste to the red pepper paste, creating a sweet and spicy flavor combination. With all these modifications, I’ve often wondered if they should really call this stuff “ddeokbokki.” It seems to more closely resemble budae jjigae, “Army soup” made with ingredients supplied by the G.I.s during the Korean War. Still, Koreans assure me that this Sindangdong specialty is, in fact, ddeokbokki — it’s just a highly stylized regional variation.
Semantics aside, whatever they’re serving in Ddeokbokki Town is definitely worth trying. Grab some friends and get ready to scrape the pot clean (the congealed, crispy bits at the bottom are the best, I swear). While there, consider topping off the spicy meal with a refreshing ice cream. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, walk just a few doors down from I Love Sindangdong and you’ll find an old restaurant called Jongjeom, where you can try dakpal, spicy fried chicken feet.
Originally Published: November 16, 2011